We have so much in common yet we are worlds apart, this Tibetan monk and me. In the courtyard of this teashop, our tables are so close that we are quite literally connected by a dog … a dog which perhaps senses a calm in each of us that permits him to rest not by, but on, our feet. The Siberian husky, Feifei, lays the lower part of his body on my feet which are snugly encased in my practical black shoes. He rests his head and paws on the loosely-tied practical hiking boots of the scarlet clad monk. Closing his eyes, Feifei exhales deeply and relaxes.
We have so much in common, yet we are worlds apart, this Tibetan monk and me. We share a common language – Chinese – but for neither of us is it our first language. His first language, his heart language, is one of the 200 distinct dialects of Tibetan, and it is this language that he uses to chat with his relative, a well-dressed man of a similar age who sits opposite him, their facial features so similar yet lifestyles apparently so different. They chat casually, each speaking and listening in turn. I love to eavesdrop in settings like this, but in this case their privacy is ensured. They use their mother tongue rather than our shared second language. My first language, of course, is English and I sit here scribbling insights in my notebook which I share with you now, quietly and unobtrusively observing and pondering. Perhaps they would like to peek over and see what I’m writing but thanks to my messy handwriting if not also the fact that I’m using my first language, my privacy, too, is ensured.
We have so much in common, yet we are worlds apart. Strangers in this bustling city with its honking cars, heavy trucks, cranes, 24-hour lit-up streets, and wealthy business people and migrant workers from all over the country who make up just some of the 14 million residents here. This is also a city of teashops, and it is in such a setting that our lives intersect for a short hour or two. Is he, like me, seeking peace in this courtyard of trees, flowers, stone barrels filled with goldfish, colourful lanterns, and of course the exceptionally friendly and trusting Siberian husky, Feifei? Does he, like me, think longingly of the space, light and crisp pure air of his hometown? Does he yearn for tsampa and butter tea around the family table with the heating element for the pot as its centre in the same way I yearn for fish’n’chips by the water with my family, the kettle which is always being boiled for a cuppa or crisp fresh salads?
We have so much in common, yet we are worlds apart. He is obviously doing pretty well in this place, judging by the extra pounds he is carrying under his long maroon robe. Amber prayer beads hang from his wrist, having been wrapped around three times and which are almost long enough for a fourth. He is living off the sponsorship of other Tibetan Buddhists for whom he prays and carries out religious duties, no doubt. It is a life of service and devotion, but not the poverty-stricken lifestyle of semi-starvation that one might have imagined a monk to endure. I, too, am doing pretty well in this place, judging by the extra pounds I am carrying under my green shirt and dark trousers. Perhaps I would do better to have a reminder to pray regularly around my wrist, but being a time-focussed westerner, I sport a pretty watch instead. I, too, live off the sponsorship of others who share my faith, but I hope that they pray for me rather than exclusively the other way round. They support me so that I can live out my faith in this part of the world on their behalf. I, too, am doing well in this place with an incredible array of tasty food and all the ‘mod-cons’, far from the life of hardship that some who send me might have envisioned. The cappuccino in front of me as I write bears witness to that.
We have so much in common, yet we are worlds apart. Brought up in a devout family, his parents invested heavily in his education by sending him to a monastery school. Oh yes, for sure they made this sacrifice with the hope that they would thus earn merit for the life to come, and no doubt they thought this would be a good career for their son too. Their faith is woven into every facet of their family life even now – the religious symbols placed around their home, the prayers chanted throughout the day, the prayer wheels they spin from time to time, the resources they invest in Buddhist flags to be placed in significant locations and still they give grain and money to the monastery. Did his mother’s heart break so many years ago when she first left her child at the monastery to be raised within the system? Did his parents and siblings eagerly anticipate his holidays? Did he live for the few times each year he got to be home with his family? Yet how proud they must be now of their son, a well-respected monk living out his calling in the big city. My family, too, are devout. My parents, too, invested heavily in my education. They did not choose my career for me, but certainly nurtured me in my faith through family devotions, regular involvement in a variety of church activities, Christian camps and clubs, Scripture teaching at our school and more. Prayer was a non-negotiable part of our day as children both at the dinner table and at bedtime. They actively supported me the whole way along as I continued in this vein as a young adult, preparing and eventually launching into cross-cultural work. I like to think that they are proud of me even now as I, too, carry out my calling in this bustling Asian city.
We have so much in common yet we are worlds apart. Many would say that we are the product of our upbringing, yet both of us would argue that our faith is genuinely our own. This middle-aged monk, however, would perhaps have a sense of being part of a wider community both in this life and in a spiritual sense, while my individualistic western mindset would want to insist that I have made my own decisions in my own life all by myself. The truth is probably somewhere in-between. And truth is what matters.
What IS the truth? We have both committed our lives to something far bigger than ourselves. Is life about earning merit and avoiding demerits? Is the great wheel of life churning on incessantly, and are we going through cycle after cycle until eventually, maybe, we are set free to be nothing? Or is there one Creator and Sustainer? Do we have only one life, an and after that, will judgement await us? Did the Almighty One send His Son to our broken world to redeem us for eternity if only we will believe?
Truth is what matters. We have so much in common, and yet we are so different.
Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), and “… everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:40). The risen Christ also said “… go and make disciples of all nations….” (Matthew 28:19)
We have so much in common, this middle-aged devout man on whose feet lies Feifei, the Siberian husky whose home is this teashop, even as my feet become numb under Feifei’s broad backside. And yet we are worlds apart.
Pray that the communities of which this monk is a part will come to know the Truth. May we enjoy real fellowship one day despite our differences. May we one day worship together the One who created us, who loves us, who made a way to redeem us and who will come again in power and glory to rule.